Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee.

The Aftermath of Arson at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee.

The Launch of Religious Jewish Terrorism

Once again, a Church is vandalized by Jewish extremists. This time, however, the religious motive is more overt. Instead of “price tag”, the graffiti quotes a passage from the Hebrew prayer, appealing to the removal of idolatry. The attack on Tabgha is therefore not simply one more attack. It marks a new level of attack on Christian institutions. For the first time, Jewish sources are quoted, making the attack explicitly religious. Tabgha marks the launch of religious Jewish terrorism.

A Random Act or A New Movement?

The attack on Tabgha is not simply one more in a chain of attacks. It is closely linked to ongoing occurrences on Mount Zion. The brothers at Tabgha belong to the same community that inhabits the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion. The monks on Mount Zion are subject to daily abuse, in the form of spitting or name calling. There has been an attempt at arson at the Dormition Abbey as well. Whether the arsonists are aware of it or not, what may be termed the epicenter of religious disharmony, Mount Zion, has sent shock-waves to peaceful Galilee.

Damaging Jewish-Christian Relations

The attack on Tabgha is the worst since the wave of attacks on Churches and Mosques began. The damage is more extensive than in any other attack on a Church. So is the exposure. Reactions by government officials were most vocal precisely because of Tabgha’s centrality. It is one of the most frequented sites on the Christian pilgrim’s route. Consider the following calculation. We can estimate 2,000 visits a day to the Church. Multiply this by the six months it will take to restore the damage, and you have 360,000 visitors to the Church who will witness the destruction. That is 360,000 ambassadors who will testify to the treatment of Christians in Israel. The damning testimony will endure long after we all move to the next item on the news. We can only wonder whether the damage will take the shape of criticizing the Jewish state or the Jewish people. The former would provide more fuel to ongoing efforts at delegitimizing Israel. The latter would undermine advances in Jewish-Christian relations.

Extremism is Blind

Attacks on a Church have nothing to do with the inhabitants or their deeds. Tabgha is a model for Christian efforts at peacemaking and contribution to local society. The monks regularly receive handicapped Israeli and Palestinian youth and convene youth camps for both sides. They are non-missionary. Who cares?

A priest walks past a graffiti reading in Hebrew "idols will be cast out" as he inspects the damage at the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the shores on the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, on June 18, 2015 AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA

A priest walks past a graffiti reading in Hebrew “idols will be cast out” as he inspects the damage at the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the shores on the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, on June 18, 2015 AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA

Christianity is Not Idolatry

The entire affair is fueled by a view of Christianity as idolatry. No matter how much state and religious officials condemn the arsonists, more is required than just condemnation. The youth, or hotheads or extremists or terrorists – call them what you like, absorbed a certain teaching, even if they misinterpreted it. Religious leaders and educators must deal with the root problem. In the slew of responses to the attack, I noted only one single response that addressed the core issue. Rabbi Amnon Bazak of Har Etzyon Yehiva stated out and out that Christianity is not idolatrous and therefore the graffiti is not mistaken in application, but in principle. Not a single one of the official religious speakers who condemned the arson touched on the core issue. Regrettably, the view of Christianity as idolatrous is growing in prominence; once a minoritarian position, it has eclipsed other views. Rabbis must deal with the root cause of this kind of religious extremism. Is Christianity “avoda zara” or idol worship? For whom? What are the implications of such affirmation? What room is there for an alternative view? These issues are becoming matters of life and death, for Jews and non-Jews. They define Jews’ moral stature. It would seem they deserve at least as much attention as the care lavished on how to observe the shemita sabbatical year under present-day circumstances.

What is Idolatry?

The appeal to idols and their removal poses yet another theological and educational challenge. What do we mean by “idolatry”? What are today’s idols? The view that Christianity is idolatrous not only ignores a long trajectory of halachic views to the contrary. It also upholds a fairly unsophisticated view of what constitutes idolatry. Judaism’s teachings are rich in their view of idolatry as something broader and more pervasive than the use of images to enhance worship. The reliance on money as a source of strength is often considered as idolatry, a theme found in the prophets and echoed in Hassidic teachings. Pursuing and relying on one’s wealth is relying on something other than God. Ideological rigidity is also a form of idol-making, teaches us the Mey Hashiloach. In short, idolatry is not only something that affects “them” – the other, the Christian; it equally affects us. Seen in this light, the arsonists were in fact guilty of some form of idolatry, making their ideology more important than God and his teaching.

Tabgha is a Watershed Moment: We Must Act Now

There is great opportunity in the Tabgha incident. Because it constitutes a watershed point in so many ways, it provides an opportunity for a more thoughtful and engaged response to the challenge. If terrorist acts are now religious, we need to deal with them with religious and educational tools. If violence now appeals to idolatry, we have the opportunity of revisiting its meaning. If those who serve us in loving care are attacked, this invites us to consider individuals for who they are. If the problem has now grown to proportions that we can no longer ignore, perhaps we can confront the challenges in a more honest and open way. Tabgha is not only a challenge for law enforcement forces. It is a challenge for religious educators and leadership. If these are willing to recognize the challenge and confront it for what it is, something good may come out of the dark and horrific moment.

Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.

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